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Israel touts gay-friendly climate, but rights fight faces religious firewall

Israelis participating in the annual gay pride parade in Jerusalem, Sept. 18, 2014. (Hadas Parush/Flash 90)

TEL AVIV (JTA) — As last Tuesday ended, it felt like Israel’s gay community had taken a major step forward.

On Feb. 23, eight separate Israeli parliamentary committees convened to discuss a broad set of issues facing the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Lawmakers from a range of parties talked about protecting LGBT Israelis in the classroom, at home, in government offices and in the army. That afternoon, the parliament officially recognized “Gay Rights Day in the Knesset.”

But 24 hours later, the atmosphere was markedly different.

On Feb. 24, the Knesset voted down a cluster of bills aiming at increasing LGBT rights. The defeated bills — including measures to establish civil unions, provide government benefits to the same-sex partners of fallen soldiers, prohibit gay conversion therapy and mandate training for health care professionals in LGBT issues — were all proposed by opposition legislators and rejected by Israel’s governing coalition.

“It’s historic that on one day, our issues were discussed in depth in all of the committees,” said Chen Arieli, co-chair of Aguda, an Israeli LGBT rights group. “What happened the next day was very sad.”

The contrast points to a dissonance in how Israel treats its LGBT community and their legal rights. For years, Israeli leaders have trumpeted the country’s welcoming climate toward gays and lesbians, especially when compared to Israel’s neighbors. Tel Aviv in particular is known as a mecca for gays, complete with a gay beach and a raucous annual pride parade.

But in the halls of government, gay Israelis have long faced a firewall of religious parties that have blocked pro-LGBT legislation. Gay couples cannot marry, adopt children or have surrogate pregnancies in Israel, though the government does recognize adoptions and gay marriages performed abroad.

Speaking Feb. 24 in the Knesset, Israel’s haredi Orthodox health minister, Yaakov Litzman, invoked the biblical story of the golden calf in expressing his rejection of the pro-LGBT bills.

Mickey Gitzin, founder of Be Free Israel, which promotes religious freedom, spoke of “a big gap between the legal situation and the social situation.”

“Socially, Israel is a liberal state. To be LGBT isn’t so bad or terrible,” he said. “But legally, we’re among the most backward states in the world.”

Personifying that tension is one junior lawmaker, Amir Ohana, who has borne much of the criticism for last week’s about-face at the Knesset.

Ohana, who is gay and lives in Tel Aviv with his partner and two children, was previously seen as an LGBT success story. A former army officer, Shin Bet intelligence agency official and lawyer, Ohana entered the Knesset with the ruling Likud party in December. He is the only gay lawmaker in the coalition, and one of only two in the 120-seat Knesset.

But though he supports increased rights for LGBT Israelis, Ohana exited the plenum for the Feb. 24 votes. When LGBT activists accused him of hypocrisy, Ohana attributed the move to his responsibility to the coalition.

In a Facebook post that day, Ohana defended himself as a fighter for LGBT rights, describing his decision to exit the Knesset as a principled move to avoid voting against bills that were going to fail anyway.

“Members of the coalition are obligated to observe coalition discipline,” he wrote. “They’re not masters of their own fate. Israel has almost no freedom to vote, nor is there a freedom to be absent.”

In Israel’s parliamentary system, coalition lawmakers are expected to vote with the government when it decides to support or oppose a bill. If individual lawmakers deviate, they can be taken off committees or have other privileges taken away.

Responsibility for determining which bills gain coalition support lies with the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a Cabinet panel composed of representatives of the coalition parties. The committee determines which bills to bring to the Knesset and which opposition measures to support. Because the coalition represents a majority of lawmakers, the committee essentially determines which bills become law.

Hovav Yannai, Knesset coordinator for the Social Guard, a nonprofit aiming to increase Knesset accountability on social issues, says this is the reason Israel’s laws don’t match its reputation on gay issues. Majorities of Israelis support pro-LGBT reform, and Yannai estimates that at least two-thirds of Knesset members would support equal rights for LGBT Israelis if they had the freedom to do so.

But the fact that a handful of committee members determines which bills gain coalition support grants outsized influence to smaller parties, which can bring down a government if they don’t get their way. Israel’s current coalition government includes the haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, which oppose LGBT rights.

“Governments work according to political agreements, not for the wider public,” Yannai said. “I don’t see positive change coming for the LGBT community in the near future as long as the Israeli government includes non-liberal religious parties.”

Absent improvements in gay rights, Arieli suggests that coalition Knesset members are being hypocritical by praising the LGBT community while stymieing its legislative agenda.

“You stand on our stages, march in our marches, give us speeches,” she said. “It’s time to walk the walk. We want actions, not just words.”